As the Philadelphia Phillies look to re-establish their dominance in the National League Championship Series on Friday night, they'll turn to a familiar but somewhat forgotten pitcher to take the mound for the crucial Game 4.
To this point in the postseason, the team's starters — Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez — have been lights-out, combining to give up only eight earned runs across nine starts.
Heading into Game 4 of the NLCS, the team had a decision on its hand: Who can be trusted to counter the Diamondbacks' planned bullpen game? Many wondered if the Phillies would turn to right-hander Taijuan Walker to ensure better matchups with the Diamondbacks lineup.
Phillies manager Rob Thomson acknowledged that line of thinking when speaking with reporters but confirmed his support for the lefty: "He has been throwing the ball very well, and I know there's a lot of right-handedness in that lineup, but I have a lot of confidence in him. I don't know how far we're going to be able to go with him, but he's been pitching very well and throwing strikes, and I have a lot of confidence in him."
Sánchez, who spent some time in Triple-A earlier this year, has been one of the Phillies' most consistent starting pitchers in 2023. The 26-year-old finished the regular season with a 3.44 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 16 walks in 99 1/3 innings.
While he made over 100 pitches only once in the big leagues this year, 14 of his 18 starts have lasted at least five innings. Thomson has proved that he'll go to the bullpen early in this postseason, so it's not unreasonable to think they'll keep a close eye on Sánchez's pitch count as the game goes on. It'll also be important to make sure his changeup looks good early:
For his part, Walker had an up-and-down year, displaying issues with his velocity throughout the summer. He finished with a 4.38 ERA (5.25 ERA on the road), 138 strikeouts and 71 walks in 172 2/3 innings. Right-handed batters had a .252 batting average against Walker, compared to a .260 mark against Sánchez, rendering the righty vs. lefty debate a bit moot against this Diamondbacks lineup.
And in the playoffs, it's vital not to find yourself in a deep hole early in the game, something Walker has been susceptible to this year. As Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted back in September, the right-hander finished the regular season with a 7.04 first-inning ERA. The risk of that trend continuing in a tight postseason series is too big to take.
From his manager to his teammates to himself, one thing is consistent: The Phillies are confident Sánchez can be a steady presence in the rotation to get the job done.
Shortstop Trea Turner noted the team is looking forward to playing behind the lefty again, telling reporters: "He's thrown the ball great for us all year. He takes us deep into games, throws strikes, gets groundballs. We love when he pitches. He's been big for us."
When speaking with the media, Sánchez expressed what this opportunity meant to him: "To be here with all my teammates, this situation, is very special to me. I'm honestly really focused on this start. I've been working really hard for this. I'm confident. This is what you work for, so tomorrow I gotta show what I'm capable of. I'm just focused on competing on the mound."
Consistency and confidence aside, it's been 26 days since Sánchez started a game — a Sept. 24 win against the New York Mets that lasted seven innings and featured 10 strikeouts and only two earned runs allowed. On Sept. 30, the left-hander got one inning of work out of the bullpen, tossing a scoreless frame against those same Mets.
While he made the Phillies' roster for the National League Wild Card Series and the National League Division Series, he didn't see any action, supporting his teammates from the sidelines. On Oct. 15, the team had Sánchez and Walker toss a couple of innings in a simulated game to get ready for a potential Game 4 outing.
The pitcher doesn't seem too fazed by the layoff between starts and the prospect of making his postseason debut, though:
While Sánchez did not face the Diamondbacks in the regular season, he has a 2.08 ERA on the road in 2023, and the team will once again look to him, confident he can shake off any rust and put the team in a position to win Game 4.
On the road yet again, Sánchez presents the best shot the Phillies have to earn a 3-1 series lead on Friday night. At the same time, he can prove that he should be a serious contender for more opportunities in the postseason moving forward.